Last year, approximately one and a half million first-time students began their degree-seeking journey within the walls of higher education. Regardless of their backgrounds and varying levels of academic preparedness, they all experienced the anxiety associated with the transition to college life.
And not all of them will make the adjustment -- less than three-quarters (74.2 percent) of students at four-year institutions make it to their second year and only 54.6 percent of students at two-year colleges return for their second year.
The transition from high school to college is daunting for most 18-year olds, but parents, too, feel the stress associated with sending a child away to college for the first time. Understanding the concerns of college freshman and what you, as a parent, can do to make the transition easier will alleviate some of the anxiety -- for you and your son or daughter.
What worries new freshmen during their transition to college
A national study entitled Your First College Year (YFCY) was developed by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA and the Policy Center on the First Year of College at Brevard College to track the experiences of first year students. Approximately 25,000 first-time students participate in the administration of the survey each year.
Findings from the annual YFCY studies identify a number of concerns shared by first year college students. Topping the list over the past few years were: paying for college, feeling overwhelmed, being lonely or homesick, meeting new people, adjusting to the social scene, and balancing social pressures with academic demands.
1. Paying for college
The majority of college students who responded to the YFCY survey reported that they had "some" or "major" stress regarding their ability to pay for their college expenses. Parents over the past decade are paying less of the increasing cost of their children's education. While the average price of attending a four-year institution has risen by an inflation-adjusted 38 percent in the past decade, parental support has declined by 8 percent.
2. Feeling overwhelmed
The YFCY reports that students "frequently" felt overwhelmed by all that they had to do and some felt "frequently" depressed. Keeping up with homework and assignments often weigh heavily on the minds of students.
William Fowkes, now a senior at Penn State University, was a little overwhelmed by his classes during his first semester. "I had a big load -- a lot of credits -- and that was my biggest concern. My biggest fear was not doing well academically," he remembers.
3. Being lonely or homesick
According to past YFCY studies, students felt "frequently" or "occasionally" lonely or homesick. Some even felt alone and isolated from campus life.
Caitlyn Allen, now a senior at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, had a difficult time making the transition from high school to college. "I hated it, the first semester," she says. Allen wasn't homesick, per se, but she was so comfortable with the social environment in her hometown that she didn't want to start all over. "Everything was good in high school and I was kind of mad that I had to leave that comfortable nook," Allen recalls.
4. Meeting new people
The YFCY study reports that students are often worried about meeting new people. Steven N. Petkas, Associate Director of Student and Staff Development at University of Maryland, College Park, agrees that fitting in socially and developing friendships with other college students is one of the biggest concerns of college freshmen. Fowkes initially didn't worry about meeting new people because a lot of his friends from high school were going to the same school. That, however, turned out to hinder his ability to form new friendships.
"I lived off campus with my friends from high school so I never really got to meet any new people," Fowkes says. "By the end of my freshman year, I didn't know anyone new. Everyone else who lived in the dorms had met new people and made new friends. I had no new friends."
5. Adjusting to the "Social Scene"
Exercising self-control in an environment of total freedom is a challenge most students experience. The YFCY survey confirms that "partying" is a common activity among new students. Possibly for the first time ever, college students are left to make decisions without the guidance or restrictions of their parents.
Samantha Kology knows that reality all too well. When her parents dropped her off at Shippensburg University for her freshman year, she was unprepared for the shock of not having someone else set limits for her.
"The freedom of college was way too much for me," she recalls. "I went a little crazy. The minute they dropped me off I thought, 'Man, this is going to be great,' but then it really does get the best of you if you are not careful," she says.
6. Balancing social pressures with academic demands
The social temptations of college life often collide with academic demands. According to past YFCY studies, almost half of respondents felt that their social life interfered with their schoolwork.
Kology fought hard not to let social pressures influence her during her first year. She says, "I made it a point not to let the party scene evade my study habits and my first semester I did really well." But then, when the second semester hit, she didn't show as much restraint. "I didn't always put school work first as it should have been and I went a little nuts with the partying. I didn't do as well as I wanted to academically," she says.
Next page: 7 Tips for parents on easing the college transition
What parents can do to make the transition to college easier
1. Listen to their concerns -- Talk with your son/daughter and ask them how they are feeling. Just talking about how they feel about going away to school can ease the stress and anxiety associated with making the transition to college.
In her welcoming address to college students and their parents, Diane K. Swartz, vice president of student affairs and dean of students at Western Michigan University, advises parents to keep lines of communication open.
"As students enter into adulthood, it's important for parents to begin acting as coaches and advisors, helping their sons and daughters make good decisions without telling them what to do," she says.
2. Teach life skills
Take time to teach your son or daughter the things they need to know to successfully live on their own like doing laundry, cooking and living on a budget. Address those things that can be taken care of or minimized.
Petkas calls that "translating worry into constructive action." Allen felt pretty prepared to live away from her parents. "My mom taught me how to balance a checkbook, I already knew how to study, and I didn't have to worry about cooking because I ate in the cafeteria," she recalls.
3. Encourage your son/daughter to enroll in a "college survival" seminar
According to a study conducted by The National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, 73.9 percent of institutions who responded to their annual survey reported that they offer a special course for first year students. Such "college survival" seminars offer a blend of topics essential for student success including study skills, time management, personal development and self-awareness, career exploration, and transition to college.
4. Talk about financial issues
Paying for college and associated expenses may be a worry for your son or daughter, even if they never mention it. Teach them how to set up a budget to manage expenses without going into debt.
"Credit card companies are going after college students because they want to get their business at a time when students need money," Swartz says. "Some college students are charging large sums of money to pay college expenses. Sometimes they even charge the balance of tuition that their student loans won't cover," Swartz says.
5. Be willing to cut the cord
Allow your son or daughter an appropriate level of independence before they journey off to college. Let them use their own judgment to decide what is best for them and trust them to make good decisions.
"The best thing my mom did was let me loose before I went to college," Fowkes says. "She knew where I was when she needed me, but she let me do my own thing the summer before college. When I went to school, the freedom wasn't an issue for me," he recalls.
6. Negotiate frequency of communication
Petkas recommends talking about how often you'll speak on the phone, visit each other, or send emails.
"Parents need to stay connected to their children and college students need to respect the fact that parents want to 'check in' with them periodically to see how they are doing," Petkas states.
Although they agreed to write emails every day, Allen and her mom ended up talking on the phone daily. "She liked to tell me what was going on at home and I wanted to tell her what was going on at school. We both really wanted to talk to each other," Allen recalls.
7. Negotiate expectations of visits home
Brett Kennedy, executive director of the Parents Association and director of the Parent's Office at the University of Maryland, College Park says that parents often expect things to be the same as before.
"Parents often think that it's going to be just like it was in high school and they are going to be in bed by 11 o'clock," Kennedy says. "That may not be true. Talk about what are reasonable expectations and come to some agreement on the important issues," he advises.
Transitioning from high school to college doesn't have to be a difficult adjustment, for your child or for you. With parental guidance and support you can make a difference in how your son or daughter handles the first year college experience. And, with a little luck, you may enjoy watching them mature into a conscientious young adult ready to take on additional life's challenges.